Weeks before I sit down with Brien Seyle and Matt Pace of Rats and People, they predict that they will give a bad interview. We make plans to discuss the band’s new album, The City Of Passersby, but they are filled with apprehension. Reluctant to explain City‘s songs, the pair doesn’t wish to be quizzed. They’re not trying to be difficult; they’re just not sure what they will have to say.
Seyle and Pace don’t seem to understand that they’re in one of the most interesting and original bands in St. Louis. Born from the ashes of punk-pirate legends the Whole Sick Crew, Rats and People easily blends genres and invents a style of its own: post-punk folklore.
Lead vocalist Seyle maintains his nasally, Dead Milkmen-esque manner of singing, but the Rats leave behind the Irish-beer-soaked swagger of Whole Sick Crew. Genres such as folk, blues, rock and bluegrass are distorted with non-traditional instruments, such as Jeremy Quinn’s glockenspiel and accordion and Pace’s trumpet and piano. The latter — who came from local pop favorites the Baysayboos — also tackles the formidable job of arranging Rats and People’s music.
Recorded by Rats and People bassist Garry Moore (a former professional sound engineer) in what Seyle describes as “the closet of a closet,” there is nothing amateur about the sound of The City of Passersby. Despite lush orchestration, the songs have a considerable delicacy, never once sounding cacophonous or over-produced. With the exception of the gorgeous, Pace-penned “Ohio,” Seyle wrote most of City‘s lyrics, which unfold in a story-telling style of prose.
In the early days of the band, Seyle and drummer Rob Laptad and Jason Matthews (of the Monads) toiled night after night in a basement practice space. After a year of heavy frustration attempting to solidify its songs, Rats and People added Pace and the group finally coalesced. Since those first shaky months, there have been a few other lineup changes (including the departure of the busy and beloved Matthews and, more recently, fiddle player Beth Dill), but the core of the band remains strong.
With a little prodding, Seyle and Pace talked for an hour and a half straight, spilling out hilarious stories and heartwarming hopes. Gracious, quick to compliment each other and completely humble (if not self-deprecating), they conclude nearly every answer with a self-conscious roll of the eyes and an apology similar to “God, that sounds so pretentious.” They are also fond of passing praise on to current (and former) band members. While they seem to actually enjoy explaining their creative process, they are still cautious when delving into specifics, citing a mutual love for misunderstood lyrics. But the fact is, once the duo gets going, its love for the band and City won’t allow them to contain themselves.
Jaime Lees: First of all, please explain how Rats and People got started.
Brien Seyle: Robby [Laptad] and I were in the Bureau of Sabotage together, that later grew up to be the Bureau. Then we quit that band to found the Whole Sick Crew, which was a band that I dreamed of starting since I was, like, sixteen — ’cause I wanted to rip off the Pogues and sing songs about pirates. We eventually had to break up to lose the shtick factor.
Well, I liked that band.
Matt Pace: I liked that band, too!
Seyle: A lot of people liked that band, but the Whole Sick Crew were more publicly consumable because of the shtick. But more important than that is the Baysayboos, man.
Pace: [Bashfully] I don’t know if it’s more important…
Seyle: We loved the Baysayboos.
Pace: And we loved the Whole Sick Crew. We loved each other. The Baysayboos played with the Bureau of Sabotage, too. Brien looked like he was imported from somewhere. The rest of the band was, like, grooving, and Brien was doing his little spastic thing.
This seems like a very St. Louis album: There’s a fleur-de-lis in the CD packaging, a song called “Filthy Little River,” lyrics that mention red brick, a map included of what appears to be the city with neighborhoods labeled with song titles…
Seyle: The City Of Passersby is kind of St. Louis in another dimension. It’s totally sci-fi, unfortunately. I’m totally reaching for profound. I always stop right short of profound — and then it’s just sci-fi, you know? I try really hard to make lyrics that reflect different things in our lives, but since I’m so story-driven, it always ends up being totally fucking D&D [Dungeons & Dragons]. I really don’t want to be pretentious, but I also wanna try really hard and make something awesome, but that’s a fucking hard line to walk.
The feelings in the lyrics are modern, but the stories seem kind of…
Seyle: Ye oldie timey?
Yeah, are the stories related?
Seyle: I’m vehemently opposed to the idea of this album as a concept album, but together it’s easy to imagine them all happening in the same place. But all of the characters in each of the songs are all so focused on their own dilemmas that they don’t even know that one step to the right there is a completely different, just as grave, dilemma going on.
The more I listened to it, the more the stories kind of fit together, as a collection. I kept thinking of (Geoffrey Chaucer’s) The Canterbury Tales.
Seyle: It’s a catalogue of stories, yeah, but God! A Canterbury Tales album? [Laughs] Maybe we should have written the whole album in Middle English!
Well, you all seem very talented, individually. Are you all multi-instrumental?
Pace: We all jump in here and there. I play a lot of different things within the band, but if the Devil challenged us to a duel, I’d pick up the guitar.
I understand you do all of the arrangements and orchestration? You take all the pieces and make them work? You’re like the Timbaland of the Rats and People.
Pace: [Laughs] Ha! I am! [Thinks, pauses, gets serious] The cool thing about [the band] is that it’s everyone playing honestly on an instrument. You could write the coolest shit in the world, but it’s not going to sound as cool as six people playing the instrument they play, live. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but I think that’s one of the charms of our band.
What band do you feel closest to in town? Who are your contemporaries?
Pace and Seyle: [simultaneously] Bad Folk.
Seyle: Actually, we’re going to do a split seven-inch with Bad Folk, their song is “Saw a Circus” and ours is “I Sang to Heather Nethereye.” It’s about a prostitute.
Uh..”Nether… eye”? Like “down there”?
Seyle: Yeah. [Stops, looks freaked out] Holy shit! The word “nethereye” [sic] is from Chaucer! Dude, you had my number! There’s no Chaucer on this album, specifically, but Chaucer definitely plays a part… apparently.